PILESGROVE, N.J. - If you wake up on a Tuesday with an unslakable need to buy Colon Cleanse, gaucho pants, a hip-hop bling kit, pierogies, and a live pig, you'd probably skip the Acme and head over to the Cowtown Flea Market.

Deep in the southern part of South Jersey, the market is a ramshackle, eclectic bazaar of goods that shares acreage and ownership with the nationally known Cowtown Rodeo.

The market's jumbled inventory seems arbitrary and random, like a third-world attempt to make a mall. Somehow, though, it all works.

With two un-pretty, unheated, un-air-conditioned buildings more than 500 feet in length, along with numerous outside stalls and a rickety-looking animal-auction barn, the market (which is also open Saturdays, sans the live animals) has been a Salem County fixture and a cultural touchstone for decades.

"It's just always been here," says Cindy Haaf, 40, a waitress at the on-site Cowtown Bakery & Restaurant. "I've been coming here since I was a kid. It would just be really weird if it were gone."

At its present location since 1945, the market was started in nearby Woodstown in 1927, providing produce and cattle.

But the Harris family, which owns the market and rodeo - frequently called the longest continuously running rodeo in the United States - actually has much deeper roots in purveying goods for local customers.

Back in 1778, Harris ancestors sold beef on the hoof to Gen. George Washington in Valley Forge and helped keep his soldiers and their revolution alive, according to Bob Becker, the man who manages Cowtown.

Becker was an organized-crime-busting Jersey cop in a previous life. These days, he wears jeans, a Western shirt and a white cowboy hat that lets you know he's one of the good guys.

"The rodeo and the Western flavor of the place go back to the Harris family cattle-sale days," Becker says.

It's a respected lineage.

"This market is one of the last holds we have on tradition," says Tim Bergman, 62, a longtime customer and farmer who had just bought a pig and was considering some green peppers. "This is something left over from when life was good, and there were better times."

In these modern, complex days of intertwined, international markets, Cowtown vendors fight to stay alive by competing with big-box retailers.

"If I get a new item to sell, I go to Wal-Mart and make sure I'm cheaper," says Fred Solomon, 76, a beauty-aids vendor at the market for 35 years who lives in Northeast Philadelphia.

"I sell Oil of Olay for one-third off," he says. "People are here for bargains."

And the 350 to 400 vendors - many of them from Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America - try to deliver. Quite a few customers are low income, with a plethora of Mexican immigrants who work local farms and have precious few dollars to spend.

But if you check the license plates on the numerous expensive cars parked in the lot, you'll see that middle- and high-income folks from Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Washington, New York and Virginia also are drawn to the market.

And on Saturdays, buses from the Carolinas on their way to Atlantic City stop by in a steady caravan.

"You never know who shows up," Solomon claims. He says that a local millionaire and his heart-surgeon friend (no names, please) often stroll the market and will buy broken stringed instruments that they fix and donate to charities.

Also, Solomon says, you'll see rich women shopping for clothes to wear to "affairs they're really not interested in attending."

Then, of course, there's former local boy Bruce Willis, who sometimes cruises the market, and once came with ex-wife Demi Moore and their children.

"They needed the cops to come and escort them out, there were so many people around them," remembers Solomon's colleague, Steve Mazen, who sells children's clothes. ("Good stuff, no irregulars or seconds.")

As Mazen speaks, a mighty moo rises from the noontime animal auction. Farmers fill the wooden bleachers to bid on livestock cooling under a rotating fan that beats back the animal stink.

Jagged shafts of sunlight shoot through weather-torn holes in the barn's metal roof, illuminating the brown hides of confused calves and lighting up the eyes of milling goats.

A motor-mouthed auctioneer runs the show, and an old farmer with a face deep-creased by the vagaries of agriculture and a lifetime of working outside in the Salem County weather smiles when he makes a good deal on a fat sheep.

Most Cowtown customers aren't there for the beasts, however. Like other markets, Cowtown offers women's accessories with high-end names such as Dolce & Gabbana, Fendi and Coach.

Some of these items sell for a fraction of their normal cost, and customers assume they're knockoffs.

It's illegal to sell counterfeit merchandise in New Jersey and Cowtown has a policy against it. Often companies protecting their copyrights will send representatives to check the goods.

"Every once in a while, we get a flood of counterfeits," Becker says. "We call the state troopers and kick out the vendors proven to be selling fakes."

Authorities can act only when they have an industry expert in tow, discerning real goods from ersatz items, says Sgt. Stephen Jones of the New Jersey State Police in Trenton.

These days, the entertainment industry is spearheading the most consistent anticounterfeiting effort, hunting down purveyors of bogus CDs and DVDs, Jones says.

Not long ago, authorities raided the farmers market in Columbus, N.J., and seized 15,000 counterfeit CDs, according to news reports.

At Cowtown, the vendors insist their stuff is real. Customers wink, nod and happily buy the merchandise.

"Now everyone will think I can afford a $600 Fendi bag," a woman crows conspiratorially after paying $45 for a handbag. "Just don't print my name."

Whether the pedigree of some of the goods is dubious, people's love for Cowtown is genuine. And abiding.

"This market has an unbelievable following," says vendor Rosemarie Leech, who put a son through college selling handmade glass objects and scented candles at Cowtown.

"This place is part of my DNA," insists Jayne Jones, a former Woodstown resident who now lives in Alabama. She brought her 20-year-old son, Ben, to show the young man where she spent her youth.

"I'm passing the place on to him."

Contact staff writer Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.